Lessons Local Churches Can Learn From Military Strategies

Editor’s note:  November 11 commemorates Veteran’s Day in the United States and we requested Retired Editor Calvin H. Sydnor, III to write this issue’s editorial.

Lessons Local Churches Can Learn From Military Strategies

The Rev. Calvin H. Sydnor, III, D.Min.

We are living in an environment that is challenging. The current leadership in the United States seems to have discarded the teachings of Jesus, particularly as it relates to integrity and caring for the poor.

Integrity, honesty, moral courage, and ethical behavior seem to have been abandoned. We seem to have forgotten the timeless biblical lessons and the lessons of antiquity. George Santayana was correct when he penned the words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Some of our failures might be the result of forgetfulness and maybe even carelessness. The church can learn as much from timeless secular lessons as they do from biblical teachings.

Let me share a few of the leadership lessons of Sun Tzu. I believe are as applicable for local churches as for the battlefield.

Military leaders in armies around the world have followed the strategic lessons of Sun Tzu, the Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher (c. 6th century B.C.). The Art of War is the classic text on military strategy and warfare.

The principles outlined in Sun Tzu’s book continue to be used by business firms and other organizations. Executives use the strategies shared in business negotiations and lawyers use the teachings to win trials. Coaches use the strategies to motivate their athletes and to help them win games.

When I was first exposed to the Sun Tzu’s military lessons, a “light” went off in my mind and I immediately realized the same principles would work in local churches. Below are several core lessons.

The first lesson is “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and seek to win.” You win first by planning! Successful church ministries are a result of careful planning. Pastors and church leaders should go to meetings prepared. Planning means you don’t make it up as you go along. Prayer, pondering, and strategy are parts of the planning process in local churches. For example, there should always be a “meeting before the meeting” and that includes preparation before official board meetings. The purpose of the “meeting before the meeting” is to get people on-board, motivated, and encourage the buy-in of and ownership for the expected outcomes of the meeting. Sadly, many church programs fail because of a lack of planning.

Practice is an important component of planning. Practice, in local churches, is the most neglected component in the planning process. It’s amazing that some clergy do not see the value of practice or rehearsals. Outstanding choirs practice and the difference between a mediocre choir and a great choir is practice and rehearsals. Stellar youth programs require practice.

I am convinced if pastors and stewardesses practiced the Service of Holy Communion, the Service would be more spiritually uplifting. When successful military units go to war, they practice. If you want it done correctly without any snafus, practice!

Sun Tzu also says that a commander should not engage in a battle that the commander cannot win. Jesus said the same thing another way. A king does not go to war and a person does not start constructing a building without first counting the cost (Lk. 14:28-34). Jesus’ and Sun Tzu’s statements are essentially applicable for local churches. The cost has got to be counted and a determination of success or failure has to be considered. There is no value in getting into a fight or involved in a local project that can’t be won.

The same holds true when a church decides to purchase an older building. Repairs and deferred maintenance have to be considered. You cannot go into serious local church deliberations, such as for a building program, costly repairs, and salary negotiations without considering the possibility of financial and human losses. Membership losses occur because some people will become fearful. Others will become antagonistic. Still, others will resist change. Some of those who oppose change might withhold their financial support. It’s good to know all of that information upfront when decisions are being considered.

Sun Tzu says “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Every leader has to know him or her self. The most sobering moment in my military career occurred when I was a student in the Command and General Staff College. We were in a class dealing with offensive and defensive combat operations in which we had to factor in combat deaths and casualties.  My epiphany of “counting the cost” became a reality because that’s when I realized that commanders cannot go into a battle with the presupposition that there will be no casualties or deaths. The military has a formula for estimating deaths in offensive and defensive combat operations. There is always the possibility of failure or casualties in any of life’s battles.

According to Sun Tzu, dangerous faults that will affect a military leader include recklessness, cowardice, a hasty temper, and a delicacy of honor. Leaders need to be ethical, moral, and courageous. They need to be even-tempered and have the ability to speak when needed and to refrain from speaking when it might be harmful.

It’s important for leaders to know their strengths and weaknesses. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. The bottom line is when engaging in any project, it’s important to understand all of the positives and negatives because such knowledge is power. When you have all of the facts, you need not fear the results.

Every activity of the church should exude spiritual focus, moral strength, and the highest ethical standards. We should not be afraid or neglect the teachings of the past. Again, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


The Rev. Calvin H. Sydnor, III, D.Min., served as the 20th Editor of The Christian Recorder from 2004-2012. He is a retired Chaplain of the United States Army, having attained the rank of Colonel, and was awarded a Bronze Star for valor during the Persian Gulf

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  1. Rev.Sydnor article is excellent, His advice an d articles are always great, the articles are so very i informative, and the advice helps the lay people, no whats and how things in out AMEC should be run! Thank God for him!

  2. The article written by Dr. Calvin Sydnor is outstanding. I know for a fact that those who served in military service regardless of the branch, were taught to be professional strategist in leadership. One of the things that Dr. Sydnor left out this command and control verses demand and withhold. Leadership requires have the ability to command and then control their troop by setting the example. What an excellent article. Thank you Dr. Sydnor.

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